Before talkies became the mainstay and mainstream for films, silent films created cinema and were the common form of motion picture entertainment until around the end of the 1920s, when The Jazz Singer was released with synchronized sound. Nevertheless, the influences of silent films have been the foundation of Hollywood filmmaking, what with their emphasis on visuals to develop character without spoken dialogue, and they utilized some of the best practical effects of the time.
Pioneers and filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Georges Melies and Charlie Chaplin have been acclaimed as giants in the field of the silent era, and their mastery has become a style that future filmmakers have emulated over time. With that being said, here are the nine of the best silent films ever made.
9 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Of course, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy might have been great as the title character(s) in 1931 and 1941, but it was really John Barrymore’s turn as Dr. Henry Jekyll and his evil alter ego Edward Hyde that encased the Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation in American cinema.
The film revolves around Jekyll attempting to understand human nature better and seeing if there is a possibility to segregate the virtues and vices of a man. This experimentation is what turns him into the monstrous Hyde as he goes around womanizing, berating, and killing people with no remorse.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde alternates from sepia tones to black and white and gives a dark look at the Jekyll and Hyde dynamic with a frightening performance from John Barrymore. It was filled to the brim with macabre and dismal philosophy that claims to audiences that, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” as Oscar Wilde writes. There may be some merit to that sentiment, but it ultimately became Jekyll’s undoing and made this such a thought-provoking silent film.
8 The Kid
Naturally, at least one Chaplin movie had to be on this list. The Kid follows 'TheTramp' (Charlie Chaplin), who finds an abandoned infant and takes it upon himself to take care of the child. They grow together as partners in petty street crimes and thieving. Its sense of innocence and comradery is what makes this film a true triumph in Chaplin’s filmography and in the silent film era. It’s sweet at its center without ever being sappy and schmaltzy. The film has become so renowned that it was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and features Chaplin at his most sentimental silent-era best.
7 The Artist
This was a silent movie released long after the silent era had ended. The Artist depicts silent film megastar George Valentin (a fictionalized Rudolph Valentino, of sorts) at the top of his game in the film industry. However, all of that is threatened when talkies take over the screen and make him irrelevant in the eyes of the public. Valentin spirals down a rabbit hole of loneliness and pitiful self-reflection as loses his grasp on reality. Admittedly, the film breaks its silence at the end, but it’s close enough to still consider it a silent picture.
The film is the newest silent film on the list, having been released in 2011. Not only does it serve as a fascinating assessment of a once-shining star that devolved into a has-been, it brought about the resurgence of Old Hollywood while celebrating it. Moreover, it won Best Picture at the Oscars and has been hailed as one of the best films made in the 21st century.
Based on the brilliant novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, audiences are introduced to Thomas Hutter, who travels to Transylvania to see a “man” named Count Orlok to conduct real estate business, but comes to the realization that Orlok may be a vampire preying on people for their blood.
If a gothic sensibility is what tickles your fancy, this silent film will be more than a delight to watch. With brooding darkness enshrouding Nosferatu as if it were straight out of the book, it puts suspense and mystery in places where no other silent movie has ever journeyed to before. It was one of the films to launch horror into the mainstream consciousness and make monsters and ghouls commonplace for the silver screen, bringing the silent era into darker territories. It was also the official launching point for endless vampire films, including a purported remake of this one from The Witch director Robert Eggers.
5 A Trip to the Moon
This is easily the shortest silent film on this list, but it took the eager silent era ambitiously by storm. The film, while only about fifteen minutes long, sees a group of astronomers traveling to the moon for research and exploration purposes. While there, they encounter a group of moon-dwelling inhabitants that chase them off the rock, and they eventually land back on Earth in an ocean.
This silent movie is short, sweet and to the point. Director Georges Melies made the impossible possible in this groundbreaking 1902 sci-fi flick, one that does so much with so little time and has become a staple in film studies and a masterclass in filmmaking, with brilliant production design and imagination that hardly any other silent film could match in execution.
The first Best Picture Academy Award winner was certainly a spectacle to behold, with sumptuously-laid cinematography and relatable storytelling. This film soars in more ways than one-- set during World War I, this romantic war picture finds a cast at the peak of their game. Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) enlists in the Army in preparation to become a fighter pilot. Afterwards, he and the audience are met with some of the most gruesome images of war put to screen that it almost looks like a documentary.
What seems like an impossibility in 1927 was a miracle in Hollywood filmmaking. Being that Wings was one of the first war pictures ever made, its brutal imagery and accuracy in close combat make it more of a history lesson rather than a film for mere entertainment. It’s rich in culture and magnificent in its execution, and can even make some contemporary films look ridiculous.
3 The Phantom of the Opera
There is something about silent films which lend themselves to horror cinema, maybe because of their similar reliance on imagery. In this 1925 silent adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel, Lon Chaney portrays the terrifying Phantom of the Opera, a rapscallion who becomes a sort of mentor to opera singer Christine Daae which turns into an unhealthy and lustful obsession with the singer.
Dread and old, vintage 1920s filmmaking go hand in hand to make this film great. The phantom’s look is already hair-raising on its own, though, and by the end of the film, the audience even feels a twinge of sympathy for the deformed phantom.
2 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
This film certainly has no shortages of thrills and artistic expression. Audiences get to explore a world unlike any other and come across a circus-barker of a man named Dr. Caligari as he shows off his somnambulist Cesare, who proves to be a terrifying character throughout the run of the film.
With the help of gorgeous German Expressionism and delightful set design, the film portrays something new that catapulted the art of this expressionist technique into new heights for audiences. The film’s influences can be seen throughout later horror films and acclaimed critic Roger Ebert has even calledThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari “the first true horror film."
While The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been an achievement in German Expressionism, Metropolis was a milestone in the genre of science fiction. It’s beautifully captured take on capitalism and the common man ring just as relevant today as they did when the film was made in 1927.
While most films these days shoot on location or use authentic set design, Metropolis and many great silent films does away with all of that in favor or more highly stylized and fantastical elements. Fritz Lang's legendary film became a giant in the silent era and reached heights that only few films could have attained at that time.